A bipartisan bill that offers a streamlined, long-term visa program for migrant agricultural workers and strengthens federal oversight of their employment passed the House of Representatives on Wednesday.
The vote put U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, and several of her Republican colleagues, on the same side of an issue as Democrats, even as Congress is gripped in a tight partisan battle over the potential impeachment of President Donald Trump.
The tally was 260 to 165 in favor of passage, with 34 members of the GOP joining Democrats to approve the bill.
All of the region’s Republican lawmakers were among those supporting the bill.
“It’s most important that we move forward,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview Wednesday morning before the vote in the House. “We have long needed to modernize the H-2A program. It is a top priority for the agriculture industry, which is the No. 1 industry in Eastern Washington.”
The bill, which now heads to the Senate for approval, makes several changes to federal immigration law specifically for migrant workers employed on farms, in addition to making it easier for employers to apply for and recruit for the H-2A visas that temporarily permit workers into the country.
Those workers showing sustained employment are eligible for renewable five-year visas for themselves, their spouses and their children, while the law also requires employers to use the federal E-Verify system to ensure they’re employing workers in the country legally.
Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse, who represents a swath of Central Washington heavily dependent on migrant labor for tree fruit and field crops, was a lead sponsor of the bill, along with Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat. The legislation has earned the backing of several trade groups, including dairy farmers concerned about the expiration of work visas during their year-round operations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But some conservative groups have criticized the bill for offering an option for permanent legal status for some workers who have entered the country illegally in the past. Such workers would have to pay a $1,000 fine, and the option would only be available to workers who show sustained employment in agriculture.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has heavily influenced policy and personnel decisions in the Trump administration, called the legislation “an amnesty bill” in a report released this week and said fixes to the country’s visa program should not be paired with measures bestowing legal access.
Some Republicans on the House floor Wednesday said the bill didn’t do enough to punish those who have previously violated the law.
McMorris Rodgers said the addition of E-Verify requirements were important for conservatives and that the legislation created “a merit-based visa program” that the president has also indicated he prefers.
“I have long advocated for the merit-based visa program,” McMorris Rodgers said. “That is what President Trump has said we need, is the merit-based visa program, and that we need to move more in that direction in America.”
Passing the bill would ensure a stable agricultural workforce, about half of which the U.S. Labor Department reported last year are not legal U.S. residents, McMorris Rodgers said. That’s important to ensuring food consumed in America is produced here, and that the country isn’t reliant on foreign sources.
“I think that this is really important for our country, and ensuring a safe and secure food supply that is in America,” the congresswoman said.
The bill now heads to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled the panel’s next major legislative priority is the impeachment inquiry against Trump. McConnell said Tuesday a vote on a U.S. trade deal with Mexico and Canada would not occur until after the Senate considers articles of impeachment, though it’s unclear when a potential vote on the farm legislation would take place.
McMorris Rodgers said it was important for the House to send a message with its vote on the farmworker bill that the issue is a priority for lawmakers across the country.
“The more votes that we can get in the House, today, the better chance this legislation has in the Senate,” she said. “This is long overdue. It’s a compromise measure.”